To many outside our country, Canada has been characterized as a stable, durable democracy with a consistently enlightened approach to matters of public policy. The political parties that have governed the country since its inception in 1867 have usually struck a balance between ideological pursuits and the general values Canadian hold dear. Canada’s Supreme Court, meanwhile, has been devoid of the ideological splits that have characterized different periods in U.S. history.
Last week best illustrates how Canada can come to grips with some crucial and potentially divisive issues. On February 2, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper tabled new anti-terrorism legislation that went further than some (including myself), who cherish basic freedoms and favor restraints on police authority in the exercise of these freedoms, would have liked. The proposed legislation, however, does strike a chord with a majority of Canadians who are willing to give some leeway to authorities in combating the scourge of terrorism and in remembering the risks of homegrown terrorist assaults (this following two such acts last autumn on Canadian soil).
The opposition parties—the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals— immediately expressed serious reservations about the new police-type powers handed to Canada’s intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS (Canada’s version of the CIA).
The NDP has chosen to use parliamentary debate to extract amendments before indicating its decision to vote for or against the proposed bill. The Liberals decided to support the bill, but proposed stronger oversight measures for the elected representatives. This being an election year, we can expect more fireworks, with the ultimate assessment of the law being made some time after the upcoming Canadian election. But the debate in itself is healthy.
Meanwhile, on another matter of great importance, Canada’s Supreme Court unanimously endorsed physician-assisted suicide in the case of patients suffering from an irremediable disease with intolerable suffering. This position, which had not been upheld in an earlier 2003 ruling, brings Canada in line with a small number of nations such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Colombia, and five U.S. states. The Court gives the Canadian Parliament one year to adapt the Criminal Code to its ruling. While the ruling remains controversial in some circles, it is in line with the beliefs of a majority of Canadians.
Two vastly different issues, spanning the left-right political spectrum, were addressed last week, showing once again that Canada has a balanced approach to policymaking—either in the political process or through the courts. This being said, there are some who see the upcoming election, scheduled for October 19, 2015, as a pivotal one that could ultimately challenge this traditional approach. Voices in the media and from the progressive left point to the Harper Conservatives’ so-called ideological rigidity as a threat to how Canada conducts its politics.
Some respected observers, such as John Ibbitson of The Globe and Mail, have stated that Canada has now shifted from consistently more progressive policymaking to an ideological-driven conservative stance ever since Prime Minister Harper formed a majority government in 2011. Largely due to the electoral coalition that gave Harper a majority government with 40 percent of the popular vote, Ibbitson argues further that the opposition parties—the NDP and the Liberals—have already had to move to the right in the hope of wrestling power from the Harper Conservatives.
Would Canada’s balanced approach to policy making really be at stake, should the Conservatives be re-elected? Is Canada making a permanent shift to the right?
Arguably, Stephen Harper is Canada’s most conservative prime minister in its history, but the two main opposition parties continue to enjoy around 60 percent popular support. The possibility that the next election could result in a minority government is emerging in recent polls. In such an eventuality, compromise is the name of the game.
True, the Conservative government has shrunk the size of government, reduced the overall burden on the taxpayers, been overtly tough on crime, and has moved Canada’s profile on the environment and foreign policy decidedly to the right. Yet Canadians remain fundamentally progressive, as noted in polls concerning issues such as Aboriginal rights, language rights, abortion rights, gay rights, immigration, the decriminalization and possible legalization of marijuana, and the role of government. We are far from a definitive right-wing shift.
Overall, and historically, Canada’s political culture and strength rests in the inherent tendency and approach of its leaders and institutions to strike a balance in the conduct of public policy. We are fundamentally a centrist country—and there is a strong centrist undercurrent in how Canadians expect their governments to act.